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David AltonNovember 16, 2023
Visitors hold a banner marking the International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking, as Pope Francis leads the Angelus from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Feb. 12, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)Visitors hold a banner marking the International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking, as Pope Francis leads the Angelus from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Feb. 12, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)  

Nearly three-fourths of Gen Z consumers are willing to pay more for products that are environmentally sustainable, according to a poll released in 2020. But would Gen Z and the rest of us be willing to pay more for products that are not produced by slaves? Would this generation be willing to boycott products made in countries credibly accused of human trafficking?

I have little doubt that if Gen Z knew the horrific origins of many of the products they purchase, the answer would be a resounding yes, and that would hold true for the rest of us. In this case, making it easy for people to “put their money where their mouth is” is not as far-fetched as you might think.

Making it easy for people to “put their money where their mouth is” is not as far-fetched as you might think.

In 19th-century Britain, knowledge of how human beings were trafficked and enslaved on Caribbean plantations led to mass boycotts of sugar products. Education changed peoples’ hearts and minds and led to the initial abolition of the slave trade. More recently, labels carrying health warnings have led to a radical drop in tobacco usage worldwide. Both of these examples targeted the ordinary person and made doing the right thing very easy. Today, if there were a legal requirement to label products as coming from Xinjiang—a province in China known for promoting human trafficking and slave labor, and where a genocide against the Uyghur population is underway—people would think twice before purchasing them.

Some may object to this truth-in-labeling approach as simplistic, or point out that governments have already enacted bills like the Modern Slavery Act in the United Kingdom and the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in the United States. These are important steps, but we also need ordinary people to make the sacrifice of passing over products made in places like Xinjiang Province. And make no mistake, many of the goods we order from Amazon or buy in our local stores are produced by slave labor.

We need ordinary people to make the sacrifice of passing over products made in places like Xinjiang Province.

In August, the United Nations marked international days of remembrance, one for the victims of violence based on religion or beliefand another for the slave trade. In my 40 years traversing the world as a member of Parliament, I have found that these two tragic experiences are inextricably linked.

Countries that deny religious freedom are serial human rights abusers, denying every other human right too. Discrimination beats a remorseless path, morphing into persecution and then into atrocity crimes and ultimately to the crime above all crimes: genocide. On the way, human dignity is replaced by gross oppression and terrible violations of human rights, including enslavement. Ignore threats to religious freedom, and people suffer and die.

Countries that deny religious freedom are serial human rights abusers, denying every other human right too.

This bleak reality was all too clear at a recent conference convened by the Notre Dame Law School Religious Liberty Initiative. Lawyers, politicians, academics, theologians and philosophers, representing many faiths, discussed the current state of religious freedom and belief around the world. We heard from people born in slave camps. From people forced to flee their homelands, we heard shocking accounts of violence, imprisonment, family separation and exile. These were voices that had firsthand knowledge of the stark reality of genocide and slavery—an everyday reality for many millions of people.

It will not be easy to end human trafficking, slavery or grave suffering, and I am not suggesting that paying attention to a label on a piece of clothing will achieve that. But doing nothing means that things only get worse.

Harnessing the sheer power of the philosopher Edmund Burke’s “small battalions” of community associations could radically tip the scales against injustice. Consumers and their spending power could bring about change. They could reshape the economics of multinational corporations that are complicit in slavery and hit the bottom line of countries, like China, that are the beneficiaries.

We should also recognize the power of faith communities to change consumer choices, as they did in mobilizing millions of people against the trans-Atlantic slave trade. If the four out of five members of the world’s population who profess a religious faith were to get behind this initiative, they could also move us closer to restoring the basic human rights of millions of people who are needlessly suffering.

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